Ever heard of the so-called ‘Curse of Ham’? This infamous term was derived from the Genesis account of the Hebrew Scriptures—commonly called the Old Testament—as it relates a certain prophecy that some are convinced resonates even to this day. The King James translation of the account narrates it this way:
And [Noah] drank of the wine, and was drunken, and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brethren without.
And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father, and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
And Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem, and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem, and Canaan shall be his servant.
The weight of the incident is rooted in the fact that Ham, one of the three sons of Noah—the other two being Shem and Japheth—was among the only eight survivors of the global deluge according to Genesis. As the only humans on earth, the sons of Noah (with their respective wives) became the families from which “all the earth’s population came from………and spread abroad.”
It, then, follows that their deeds could have a profound effect on world history as the ancestors of every human today. Hence, the Curse of Ham conspiracy.
The Children of Ham
But what has this curse got to do with the ‘Black Race’?
First of all, from which of the three sons did ‘Black People’ in general descend? Thankfully, the Judeo-Christian Scriptures is rich in the genealogies of men in tracing their origins, and the Genesis record of the lineages of Shem, Ham and Japheth does not disappoint in its preoccupation with history.
Therein, we learn that Shem fathered Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram from whom the Semitic People or Semites—these include the Jews, Assyrians, Syrians, Chaldeans and various Arabian tribes—descended. Semites generally occupied southwestern Asia and a considerable portion of the Arabian peninsula. Japheth was father to Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras from whom the Japhetic People or Japhetites descended. Historically, the Japhetic Race is of the Aryan or Indo-European branch of the human family. These include the Caucasian race (the so-called “white people”) of Europe, and apparently the Asian Race. Ham fathered Cush, Mizraim, Put, and, Canaan. The Hamites dominated Africa through Cush (evidently the principal progenitor of the ‘Black Race’) and perhaps Put, and Mizraim became the ancestor of the Egyptians. The Canaanites descended from Canaan.
From this ancestral and historical portrait of the human race, Africans and the ‘Black Race’ can generally be identified as a people of Hamitic descent. The genealogical children of Ham.
Hence, does this ancestral connection confirm the so-called ‘Curse of Ham’? Is the ‘Black Race’ under the shroud of a curse of servitude to the people of Semitic and Japhetic descent that are predominantly a non-black people?
Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
The Myth and the Misnomer
What did the account actually say?
“Cursed be Canaan; a servant. . . shall he be unto his brethren.”
It was Canaan, one of Ham’s sons, that was cursed and not Ham himself. So, this ‘Curse of Ham’ is really an unfortunate misnomer; there was no ‘Curse of Ham’ to subsequently affect all those of Hamitic descent, but rather a ‘Curse of Canaan.’ Perhaps, this attribution of the curse to Ham is given grounds in the fact that the Scriptural record mentions only that “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren.” Still, even though Ham was subsequently overlooked in Noah’s blessings, it was Canaan rather than Ham that became the object of the curse. Why?
Note how the account says: “And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.”
Many reference works have noted that the Hebrew word translated ‘son’ could just as well mean ‘grandson’. This suggests that rather than referring to his direct son, Ham, Noah was referring to his grandson, Canaan. Perhaps, this can be seen in what Noah says next right after the reference to a ‘son’: “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.”
Apparently, by referring to “what his younger son had done unto him”, Canaan must have, more or less, indulged in some gross immorality upon Noah; an act which his father, Ham, became a witness to when he “saw the nakedness of [Noah], and told his two brethren.” An act that merited the curse upon Canaan. And you’ll find no more obvious justification for this curse than in the descendants of Canaan—the Canaanites—who built up an especially abhorrent record of immorality and depravity, true to the trait exhibited in their ancestor.
The prophetic nature of the curse saw its fulfilment in the conquest of the land of the Canaanites by the Semitic Israelites and, subsequently, when their remnants came under the Japhetic world powers of Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. As it were, Canaan indeed became servants to Shem and Japheth.
Case in point, it was Canaan that was cursed.
More so, the progenies of Canaan, the cursed one, were not of the black race, but a lighter-skinned people. So, really, this curse had nothing to do with the black race. As has been noted, Scriptural evidence points to Cush (and perhaps along with Put) as the main progenitor of the black race. Neither Cush, nor Put, were involved in the incident that led to their brother’s curse.
There is, therefore, no Scriptural connection of any kind between the dark complexion branch of the human family through Cush or Put and the curse marked on Canaan.
The Mythic Curse Takes Root
Despite this, there has been no shortage of applying this misnomer and myth of the so-called ‘Curse of Ham’ to the black people throughout history from religious commentators. John F. Maxwell observed in his book ‘Slavery and the Catholic Church’ how “this disastrous example of fundamentalist exegesis continued to be used for 1,400 years and led to the widely held view that African Negroes were cursed by God.”
The history of modern-day civilization lent credence to this false curse through the wholesale colonial domination of Africa by Europe. A story of superiority, taken root, now blossomed into the reality of the slave trade of black people and sealed the false narrative in the fruits of racial inferiority; a fruitage whose taste still plague many of the black people today.
From the deplorable sanitary conditions to the lagging developmental progress to the rampant poverty of Africa, this entrenched reality has given cloth and substance to the rather unsubstantiated myth of an ancestral curse. A myth long enforced has now given birth to world conditions that seemingly and convincingly confirm the tale of inferiority and negativity.
In Ghana, we all recognize the popular term ‘Black Man, Black Mentality’ and its variations as a response to the appalling conditions perceived prevalently in our black community. So, that narrative long sown we now unabashedly own, for the state of affairs presents an undeniable reality that seems to convince us that something is uncannily wrong with the black man.
Writing for the University of Texas College of Liberal Arts, in an article entitled ‘The Black Race: Myths, Complexes, And Compassion’, Leonard Karshima Shilgba, a Nigerian, solemnly lamented:
“I looked and the colour of my skin with a heavy heart filled with questions about my black race. Everything about my people seems to be as dark (or black, is it?) as the colour of our skin. I thought about the location of horrid squalor on earth; it dawned on me that poverty can truly be defined as a black man full of remonstrance without action. . . Take a look at Africa, inhabited by both white and black populations. The most undeveloped and backward part of Africa is not white but black (sub-Saharan Africa), and the part of black Africa that has made the most significant progress in development has an equally significant proportion of the white population that controls the economy and leads in technology and modern agriculture. . .”
What say you? As an observer, are you inclined to agree?
At the very least, even if we do (and should) call out the so-called ‘Curse of Ham’ for the Scriptural sham that is it, does not this modern rendition of a deleterious spell on the black community seems all too real enough to ignore?
The ‘curse’ may be hollow but its shroud is certainly tangible.
So, it is only appropriate to indeed ask: Whatever happened us?*
This presents a good cause for deep reflection on our strengths and weaknesses; we must be candid about our faults and open to correction as individuals and as a people while embracing our abilities and latent gifts, especially with a willingness and determination to advance our capabilities and make the necessary amendments in the spirit of continuous progress.
As we seek to re-boot our story for the good of the entire human family, we may look to how various external and internal factors from a historical, socio-cultural, religious, political, and even a commercial lens may have colluded to create the seemingly dark world of the black family (excuse the pun).
And while we’re at it, we can certainly disregard the ‘Curse of Ham’ as a credible point of reference to the realities of today.
. . .
*By us, the context surely implies the black community. But if you ask me, I’d say that is really an incomplete view of things, for the entire human race is evidently sick. So, really: Whatever happened to us? But that’s another story.
WRITER: Richard Yaw Baafi